Who's the Boss? Not Me.

By Jarrod Shappell

Tuesday, December 12th 2017

2007 Pinot Noir. Rosemary and sea salt crackers. A cheese whose name was too French for me to pronounce. This generous gift basket had arrived at my door, addressed to me, but for the life of me I could not figure out why.

I texted my wife. “Any idea why I’d be receiving a gift basket?”

Her reply. “For being a newly appointed Partner, you sure are dumb.”

Though a bit bitter for my taste, her words helped me notice that I had not given weight to my recent promotion. Just days after “making Partner” in our firm, I had returned to business as usual. My quality of work had not evolved, my sense of responsibility had not increased, my efforts had not multiplied. I had been given additional positional authority, but my behavior had not changed.

If you resonate with those feelings at all, you’re likely facing the challenge of leading from the middle. Every organization has a pecking order (both perceived and real) and for most of us, it does not matter if you are second in command or tenth, if you are not The Boss, you see yourself as less responsible for the direction of the company. You may have a title that infers management responsibility, but you aren’t sure of the authority you have to influence others in the organization. You might be feeling “I’m not THE Boss. So how do I truly lead?”

So to the partners, directors, and managers reading this, what do we need to do to embrace our power and ensure that we don’t fritter away our power and have the impact our organizations need from us to be successful?

Believe in your efficacy

It all begins in seeing the value in being “a boss.” The false assumption that change only happens from the top, will doom your organizational ascension before it even begins. Not to mention the doom it can bring your organization! For example, too often leaders in the middle knock on the CEO’s door with a good idea only to be discouraged at how quickly it was dismissed. Don’t be content with offering your point of view, make sure it’s understood. You are not simply a mouth piece for those above you. Nor are you merely a conduit for information from those that report to you. Believing in and asserting your voice is both great developmental practice for yourself and high quality input for whoever is The Boss.

Let go of the need to be right

And while you want to offer your point of view with confidence, there is an inherent tension when you are not the leader of the organization. Your leader may go against your proposal. Find value in that you contribute to the decision, not in the outcome of the decision.

Maximize your opportunities

The Boss’ schedule is filled with public appearances and board meetings. Therefore unique, future-oriented opportunities will arise and can have tremendous benefit for the organization. You may be able to see these opportunities coming, or they might sneak up without warning. You must be prepared to recognize and act on those unique projects. This may mean intentionally volunteering for projects that are tangential to your day job or advocating for your participation in a project that is not in your jurisdiction. Finding and taking advantage of these opportunities, without self-promotion and self-interest, is key to leading from the middle.

Connect the dots

As you get higher and higher in an organization, leaders have a distorted view of things on the ground (at the plant, with the customer, in the market). One of the most valuable things about not being The Boss, is that you can more clearly see why things did or did not work. Learning from one failed product launch, could provide insight to avoid another kind of failure. Understanding an emerging trend in one region could redirect efforts for the global enterprise. Your ability to connect what is happening on the ground to the larger strategy (or your manager’s priorities) is an irreplaceable gift to your organization and The Boss.

Lead who you’ve been given

Leading from the middle requires comfort with being both a subordinate and a superior. At times you may need to be assertive and other times understanding or even deferent. Managing this tension is why so many managers burn out. That said, middle managers must be an effective conduit for their leaders and their own staffs. As you develop relationships with your managers, seek to understand their agendas, not just so that you can succeed, but so that you can more clearly articulate what is required of those that report to you. Stay away from sentiments like “I don’t understand this, but The Boss said…” Your behavior and tone towards your superiors is modeling the behavior that you want from those that report to you. The commitment and dedication you show to your superiors will be returned to you by your team.

Keep Dreaming

Being partner or senior vice president doesn’t mean that its betrayal to think of what is next for yourself. As we have written about before you have opportunities to root in the organization in which you are planted, supplement your work with things where you have more authority or control, or begin to calculate your next vocational leap…all while in your current position. Doing this ensures that your lack of authority doesn’t turn into a deep resentment towards those who are in authority.

It takes a patient and thoughtful leader to lead from the middle. If you can lead well without being The Boss, you prove you do not need a title to get something done and that you are worthy of many more gift baskets. 

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